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Radical Action Plan Approved

Tuesday May 21 2019

- Major investment in growth projects and presbytery reforms
- No increases in ministries and mission contributions after next year
- Special Commission to review the Church of Scotland's Presbyterian form of government


Dr Sally Bonnar, convener of the Council of Assembly. Picture by Derek Fett


The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has approved the Radical Action Plan which will mean a significant shake-up of the whole organisation aimed at making the church fit for the 21st century.

The far-reaching changes will include:

  • an investment of £20-25m over six years in projects which will ‘encourage greater faith-sharing, innovation and creativity at local and regional levels’
  • initiatives to help the Church to engage with young people
  • a reduction in the number of presbyteries in Scotland to around 12 (from the current 45)
  • work to encourage networks, hub ministries and other responses to the shortage of parish ministers
  • a review of the role of Kirk Sessions
  • increased co-operation with other denominations
  • a training and support programme for all leadership roles in the Church Of Scotland
  • a new platform of faith and nurture resources
  • professional support at local or regional level on buildings expertise, safeguarding, finance, employment and partnerships

The plan had been brought by the Council of Assembly after their proposed 10-year strategic plan was rejected by last year’s General Assembly.

The Council convener, Dr Sally Bonnar, told the Assembly that ‘we need to think about how we can bring the message of the Gospels effectively to the generation in which we live, and what shape the church should take in order to do this’.

Dr Bonnar said that the plan was presented ‘in a spirit of humility’ and emphasised devolving resources and responsibility to local or regional level, where possible. It should be taken in conjunction with the reforms to the central structures agreed yesterday and the buildings strategy to be discussed later in the week.

She said: “To achieve what we hope to achieve, we will need to work together so collaboration is a key value, but collaboration in a spirit of humility. Listening carefully to one another and learning from one another – the respectful dialogue in which we have been encouraged to engage around other issues – will be helpful here in planning for the future.”

The plan was generally welcomed by the Assembly. The Rev Mike Goss said: “I want to say a heartfelt thanks for the huge amount of work and for what is before us today. I think the Assembly should be enormously grateful for what is a real Radical Action Plan and a real reaction to the call of the Assembly last year.”

A proposal to remove the target of 12 presbyteries was defeated. Dr Bonnar said: “We need to have real targets if we are going to make significant change.” The Rev Jim Stewart made an appeal for the new presbyteries to be more than just a larger version of what they are now, instead being organisations with a ‘culture of mission and excitement (with) a firing of the spirit’.

The Rev Iain Greenshields warned that ‘Simply bringing presbyteries together in and of itself will not work unless they are adequately resourced’.

It was confirmed that the changes to presbyteries apply only to those within Scotland, not the Presbyteries of England, Jerusalem and the International Presbytery.

The section on appealing to younger people was enthusiastically welcomed, with the Rev Scott McRoberts (who leads an Inverness Church where 30% of the congregation are under 40) said: “The green shoots of growth are there. Let’s go into the unknown, let’s have this adventure.”

The Rev Dr Doug Gay, however, warned that the report was light on how the Church could increase its capacity for working with young people: “Youth workers and youth leaders do not train themselves.”

Following an amendment accepted by the Council, the section on ecumenical co-operation was changed to include ‘a re-examination of what territorial ministry means within today’s context’. The Rev John Bremner, a representative of the United Reformed Church National Synod of Scotland, urged the Church to engage with ecumenical partners: “What matters is that the Church as a whole brings the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Scotland.”

The only section of the Action Plan replaced was one on the Ministries and Mission contributions (the money paid by local churches to the central administration). Instead, a counter-motion from the Rev Dr Karen Fenwick instructing that no congregation should have its Ministries and Mission allocation increased after next year ‘until such time as alternative arrangements have been approved by the General Assembly’ was passed.

In the most impassioned speech of the week so far, Dr Fenwick said her congregation’s contributions had gone up 23 per cent since 2015, which had impacted on their mission work, and that they could not afford any more. She said: “We have changed from being fishers of men to being tax collectors.”

A petition from the Presbytery of Duns that congregations in vacancy should have their contributions limited at £10,000 was rejected. The Rev Bryan Kerr warned that too many reductions to the Ministries and Mission income could lead to the Church being unable to carry out the reforms in the Radical Action Plan.

A special commission is to be formed to explore whether the Church’s current Presbyterian form of government is the most effective. Proposing the Commission, the Rev Gordon Kennedy said that the last time this had been considered was in the 1950s, and it was time ‘to look again at whether it was still effective ‘in the rapidly changing circumstances in which we find ourselves’ and ‘able to empower prophetic leadership in our church’.

The Rev Dr Donald McEwen, convener of the Theological Forum, said that the church could decide that ‘other forms of Church Government are agreeable to the Word of God’ and that it was ‘a deeply interesting theological question’.

The Rev Scott Rennie agreed, saying: “Our present forms of Government are there to serve a purpose… there should be no holy grails. And we know from partner churches that there are different forms of Presbyterianism.”

At the end of the debate the Moderator, the Rt Rev Colin Sinclair, said: "We have made a start. Deciding is not doing. If we have supported then you must be its ambassadors, to make it work. That involves our prayers and our hearts and our speaking well... or all we have done in the past couple of days is words."


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